I’m approaching the end of the second year in my PhD program, and the topic of dissertation research comes up in conversation constantly. “Are you doing any fieldwork this summer?” “How long do you think you’ll be in the field?” “How many field sites will you have?” And the answer is that while I do hope I’ll be spending part of the summer in Africa, I won’t be going to “the field,” because I think that phrase reflects a lot of odd things about how researchers and development workers interact with places in the global South. (It’s not confined to Northerners working in the South, either; I’ve met plenty of people from large cities in Africa who would use similar language about going to rural areas in their own country.)
What strikes me here is that if you’re going to the field, you have to be coming from somewhere else. Particularly among people who work in Africa, the field is often discussed as a place of opportunity – all that data to be collected, all those programs to be run! – but also of great challenge – poor infrastructure, corruption, the risk of disease, and so forth. Semantically, saying that you’re going to the field doesn’t just mean that you’re physically coming from another location, but also implicitly sets up that location as one which doesn’t suffer from those problems. You’re coming from a different type of place, off in search of knowledge. Just think about whether you would use the phrase “field visit” to describe both a trip to rural DRC and to the colonial archives or an NGO’s headquarters in Belgium. The latter being in the North, I think most researchers or development workers wouldn’t call that “the field” even if they had to travel from another country to get there. But functionally, what’s the difference? You’re coming from a different place, off in search of knowledge. (In many ways this echoes the expat vs immigrant debate.)
The problem I see here is that using “the field” like this essentializes low-income countries (and particularly rural or conflict-affected areas within them) as places that are fundamentally different to anywhere else. They’re not places where people live or work or go on holiday like any other; they’re sites of research and development programming, because they’re poor and they have all these problems that need to be fixed. They are defined by their poverty and its associated challenges before anything else. And when you start conceptualizing a place primarily in terms of absence – of health, of security, of good roads – you’re likely to miss a great deal of what’s actually present. Moreover, and perhaps more essentially, this strikes me as disrespectful. No one wants to be seen primarily as a problem to be solved, be it in international development or in interpersonal relationships. I think being respectful is about trying to look at people as individuals instead, with their own stories and their own inherent worth.
It’s a very small thing, to avoid saying “the field,” and obviously it doesn’t change any of the other unequal power dynamics between Northern development workers and Southern citizens. But language has power, and I think it’s important to avoid these semantic shortcuts which suggest that people in certain places are fundamentally different to those elsewhere. So no, I’m not going to the field this summer, and I haven’t got any research subjects. I’m going to Kinshasa, or Nairobi, or Kampala (research plans still clearly up in the air!), and I’ll be doing interviews or piloting survey questions with people who are polite enough to take time out of their work days and talk to an inquisitive foreigner.